Making a Difference.

For a long time, Sudan had been the “bete noire” of humanitarian activists.  The government in Khartoum provided shelter to Osama bin Laden before American pressure mounted to such a level that he had to be invited to relocate to Afghanistan.  It waged a grisly war in the western province of Darfur.  This earned Sudan widespread condemnation for “genocide.”  Then it ramped-up a smoldering conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian/Animist South Sudan.  Eventually, the United States played a leading role in achieving national independence for South Sudan in July 2011.[1]

This arguably marked a considerable success for the foreign policy of President Barack Obama.  One question is whether it caused American diplomats to become too invested in that apparent success to see the possible flaws and even to correctly judge the character of the men who took power.   They owed their positions in part—but only in part—to American diplomacy.

Immediately, a problem arose: South Sudan wasn’t a “nation”; it was an agglomeration of tribes.  The two chief tribes were the Dinka and the Nuer.  Although bitter hostilities had pitted Dinka against Nuer in the past, the two groups united to fight the government of Sudan.  At independence, Salva Kiir, a Dinka leader became president, and Riek Machar, a Nuer leader, became vice-president.

Neither peace nor unity lasted very long.  First, Riek Machar lost his position as vice-president.  Then, in December 2013 civil war broke out between the Dinka and the Nuer.  Many people perished in the fighting.  The United Nations brokered a series of peace agreements that were honored only in the breach by the warring parties.  Deaths have mounted into the tens of thousands.  Generally, the Western press and humanitarian groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, presented ample evidence of the mass killings to the Western public.  Generally, that public showed no interest in these events.

That left it to governments to decide what course to follow, then to make the case for their policies to the voting public.  Here the wheels came off American diplomacy.  Although the Obama administration had played an important role in creating the South Sudan, it failed to engage with the subsequent crisis.  By Summer 2014, humanitarian groups were urging the United States to use an arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions (of the sort rapidly applied to Russia after it re-took the Crimea from Ukraine) to try to restrain the killing.  However, division ruled in the American government.

In Summer 2016, the United States urged the U.N. to authorize the sending of 4,000 additional peace-keeping troops to the capital city of Juba.  In September 2016, the American ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, got the government of South Sudan to agree to admit additional peace-keeping troops.  It appears that President Kiir only agreed to this to get Power to go back to Washington.  So, far none have actually been allowed into the country.

By November 2016, with the Obama administration headed for the exits, Power finally won support within the government for an American proposal to the U.N. to impose both economic sanctions and an arms embargo.  In late December 2016, the U.N. Security Council rejected this proposal.

Why?  Perhaps because the Russians opposed sanctions, and African countries didn’t want to impose sanctions.  Perhaps because it is safe to defy an outgoing administration.[2]

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Failures on South Sudan Highlight the Limits of U.S. Diplomacy,” NYT, 19 January 2017.

[2] And not just for foreign countries.  This is the second recent article implicitly critical of Samantha Power as more theatrical than effective.  See: Helene Cooper, “From a Fateful Motorcade,..,” NYT, 6 January 2017.

Shooting Dogs.

David Belton went to Rwanda in 1994 as a reporter for the BBC.  After the killings began, he and the other whites were evacuated by Western military forces.   These Westerners left behind many Rwandans they had known, but carried with them terrible memories of things they had witnessed.  Belton went back to making documentaries for the BBC.  Rwanda stayed on his mind.

One of the stories from Rwanda which Belton heard concerned Father Vjekoslav “Vjeko” Ćurić (1957-1998).  Ćurić had been born in the Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia.  He became a Catholic priest and, in 1983, went to Rwanda as a missionary.  He got posted to a small town in the provinces.  Ćurić turned out to be a missionary priest out of some 1940s Hollywood movie: moral without being moralistic, and devoted to his flock and beloved by them.   When the genocide began, he refused to be evacuated.  He worked hard and courageously to help victims from among both Hutus and Tutsis.  He survived the genocide, but someone shot him dead a few years later under murky circumstances.[1]

David Wolstonecraft (1969- ) was born in Hawaii, but ended up living in Scotland at a young age.  He went to Cambridge (where he got a BA in History, so there).  He got a job writing for British television shows.  Television is a small world.  Belton and Wolstonecraft ran into each other.  Together, they wrote the script for “Shooting Dogs,” inspired by what Belton had seen in Rwanda and centered on a version of the story of Father “Vjeko” Ćurić.

They pitched the story to BBC Films.  Approaching the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, lots of people were thinking back to it and what it had meant.[2]  BBC Films agreed to produce it.  They put Michael Caton-Jones (1957- ) in as director, hired some not-quite stars to act, and decided to film the movie in Kigali, Rwanda.  So, lots of what you see in the movie is what Kigali actually looks like, and most of the extras are Rwandans.

None of the Rwanda movies does a good job of explaining the context.  In brief compass, a recent insurgency by Tutsis against the Hutu government had resulted in a truce.  The UN has sent in a bunch of Belgian soldiers to “monitor” the truce.[3]  Then the Hutus began to repent their moderation.  Meanwhile, the US didn’t want to get involved in another Somalia.[4]  The French didn’t want the potentially pro-Anglophone Tutsis to defeat the actually Francophone Hutus.  So, the two countries resisted calling what happened “genocide” or intervening to stop it.

The story centers on the “Ecole Technique Officielle” (The Official/Public Technical School), a sort of technical middle school.  A priest, Father Christopher (played by John Hurt),  runs the school.  He is assisted by a young Englishman, Joe Connor (played by Hugh Dancey, who has come to Africa for a while to do some good in the world.  The school also provides a base for a bunch of the Belgian soldiers.  Then, there is Marie (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), the Tutsi student who may have a crush on Joe.  Around this human core of the story circle a BBC reporter and her cameraman, who symbolizes the media and what the world knows; a Belgian army officer, who symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the UN; and a bunch of killers with machetes and clubs.  What are any of these people—or us–supposed to do?

[1] It could have been an armed robbery or it could have been some kind of retribution for his actions in 1994.  Or it could have been something else entirely.

[2] Curiously, at the same time another Anglo-American team of writers was working on a different story about Rwanda.  Keir Pearson and Terry George wrote the script for “Hotel Rwanda.”  It came out the same year as “Shooting Dogs” and just buried it.  Too bad: it isn’t a better movie, just a more up-beat one.

[3] That is, they are not there to “enforce” or even “keep” peace.  They’re just watchers.  Voyeurs really.

[4] See “Black Hawk Down” (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001).

Garrison States.

Governments have always oppressed and killed elements of their populations. However, the technological and organizational breakthroughs of the 19th century gave states unprecedented capacities. Telegraph, radio, telephone, railroads, automobiles, and air planes vastly improved communications and transportation, while centralized bureaucracies extended the reach of central government in other ways. Chemistry and machine-tools combined to provide killers with new means to deal out mass death. These trends converged to make the 20th century one of unmatched destructiveness.

The best estimate is that between 1900 and 1987 governments killed about 170 million people outside of combat operations between military forces. In comparison, battlefield deaths numbered “only” 34.4 million for the same period. This trend continued to the end of the 20th Century. In the 1980s about 650,000 people were killed in inter-state conflicts; in the 1990s that death toll fell to 220,000 people killed in international conflicts. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people were killed in civil wars during the 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon of state-sponsored mass murder has attracted the interest of thoughtful people. A political scientist named R. J. Rummel was one of the scholars who became interested in this phenomenon. His curiosity yielded one new word and two books. The word is “democide” (meaning the intentional killing of citizens by their government); the books are Death by Government (1994) and Statistics of Democide (1997).

In 1998 the CIA commissioned Professor Barbara Harff (Political Science, USNA)[1] to explore the possibility of predicting future “democides.” Harff found that statistical modeling of social, economic, and political factors produced a list of countries “at risk” of genocide. Some of these countries were places with long-running and already savage wars underway (Algeria, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan). The others clustered in northeastern (Ethiopia, Somalia) and central (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) Africa. Last, but not least, there was Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had already slaughtered about one and a quarter percent of the country’s people. (The total population was 24 million.)

Another factor should not be neglected, however.   Twentieth-century “democide” has generally been the child of attempts to create totalitarian social utopias. Democratic governments have virtually never engaged in “democide” in the Twentieth Century. (Admittedly, this isn’t going to make the Indians of the Americas feel any better.) Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung killed millions of people attempting to eliminate racial or class enemies. Their fore-runners (the Young Turks, Lenin) and imitators (Pol Pot) killed millions more.

How can we explain the proliferation of destructive utopia in modern times? Did the organizational and technological means available to madmen become much better developed than in earlier times? Did some accident of political, social, and economic conditions bring madmen to power in a single historical period? Is it possible to forestall catastrophe in the future?


“Human Development Report 2002,” Atlantic, October 2002, pp. 42, 44.

Bruce Falconer, “The World in Numbers: Murder by the State,” Atlantic, November 2003, pp. 56-57.


[1] Curiously, both Rummel and Harff were graduates in Political Science of Northwestern University.